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Feminisation of poverty

By Paidamoyo Muzulu

MAI Ezra — the common woman in either rural or urban Zimbabwe — might not know that today is Mothers’ Day yet they have been carrying the burden of keeping the family together in a country with both declining socio-economic conditions.

Mai Ezra is former Finance minister Tendai Biti’s creation. She was from Dotito, a rural outlaying area deep in Mashonaland Central province. Biti would theatrically call her name when presenting the national budget when emphasising his supposed wild consultations in coming up with the budget or justifying some figure allocated to a specific vote.

Zimbabwean women have carried the brunt of neoliberal economics pursued since 1990. Mai Ezras have become more than mothers and have become the epitome of multi-tasking. They have to juggle their time among many competing interests and still have time to be taught how to cook by the First Lady.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation worse for Mai Ezra. On the economic front, she has not been able to set up her vending stall most of the time since March 2020 because of national lockdown. Her cross-border business has been choked by border closures, especially the land borders to pedestrian traffic.

The average Mai Ezra has become a teacher out of necessity. Many cannot afford paying the teachers for private tutoring and hence have to home school their children. The burden has been worsened by teachers’ rolling strike under the guise of incapacitation.

She is also the family doctor. Mai Ezra had to learn quickly to diagnose a fever or a cold and get a paracetamol because she cannot afford a doctor’s consultation fees. Collectively, the women have carried the burden of looking after the ill in the families and were still expected to tend to the fields. The State has largely not been there for her. It has failed to improve water reticulation systems, making constant supplies of electricity available to the homes. It means Mai Ezra has to fetch water from the communal borehole in addition to looking for alternative sources of energy to cook her family meals or light the house in the load-shedding darkness.

Various international studies on development have concluded that a State’s provision of potable water, clean energy and basic health care and education can spur development. They argue it leaves women with more time to engage in other economic activities.

It is on a day like this that we are reminded the role that women play in our communities. It is not enough posting pictures of our mothers, shopping them nice outfits or take them out for lunch or dinner, we have as a country to reflect on the quality of lives for the other 364 days in a normal year or 365 in a leap year.

The privatisation of health and education is not sustainable and is a burden on mothers. Women since time immemorial have been bogged down by domestic chores. They could not pursue a career of their choice but were expected to take care of the home and raising children.

This has over the years developed two groups of women based on class and in some instance race. Poor black women are twice less likely to be successful than a white rich woman or a black man. They are victim of gender, race and class. It does not need me to point out that the majority of women in Zimbabwe are both black and poor.

It, therefore, becomes important that the State has a role to play to lift the millions of black women from poverty and give them a chance to achieve some financial independence. This is possible by adopting democratic socialism values — State subsidised education, health, water delivery, public transport system and energy.

It cannot be overemphasised that an ordinary Mai Ezra with access to potable water, clean and affordable energy and a proper council run early education and development (ECD) centres will leave her with much free time to channel towards her education or running a small business enterprise.

This is a call to a paradigm shift in how the State and local authorities allocate resources in their budgets. It cannot be business as usual and allow the International Monetary Fund dictated financial rules for cutting expenditure on social services. Zimbabwe needs these social services — health, education, water, public transport and energy.

Privatisation of the aforementioned services as Finance minister Mthuli Ncube has suggested in his budget statements is against the people, the majority poor who will never be able to afford privatised services. The recent Zimsec Advanced and Ordinary Level examination results have shown what privatised education will do.

It is important that social services cannot be left to donors or the more politically-correct term — development partners. These institutions have their own agendas and sometimes they align to our needs.

However, these are driven more by their mother nations’ foreign policy, for instance, the Monsato seeds debacle. USAid has over the years in the fight against hunger been promoting the growing of genetically modified Monsato seeds that cannot be harvested and replanted.

It is time that civil society and the opposition should step up to the plate and stop Ncube’s privatisation agenda that is anti-black women in particular and anti-poor in general. Besides making flowery speeches in parliament, Ncube has struggled to have the social safety nets for COVID-19 reach the poor and vulnerable.

As we commemorate or celebrity what mothers have done to their families and the nation at large, it remains important to reflect what the State can and should do to make their lives better. It starts with an ideological turn in the State’s programming and executing of its policies, particularly that which have direct impact on women’s lives.

We cannot continue having women as the face of poverty.

Happy Mothers’ Day Mai Ezra.

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